New EXOL equipment will slash pollutant levels

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 3, 2002

Smoke rolling upward from the EXOL plant, which has become a symbol of area farmers’ success and rural economic development, will disappear for good next month.

That is because of a new technology to eliminate air pollutants and odor produced in the ethanol refinement process. The device will enable the farmer-owned cooperative to fully comply with a settlement with state and federal regulators over emission control, which was announced Wednesday.

The settlement concluded a dispute between the industry and regulators, which became visible when the Environment Protection Agency mandated 12 ethanol plants in Minnesota to address the problem in June after the agency detected greater amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other pollutants in the ethanol plants’ emissions than previously believed.

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The industry agreed to install the air-pollution-control equipment, and each plant agreed to pay a $29,000 to $39,000 fine for violations of the federal Clean Air Act alleged by the agency. A provision in the act requires major facilities to install the best available pollution control technology. Neither the agency nor plants say they were aware of the pollution until the tests using new methods were conducted this spring.

EXOL General Manager Rick Mummert said he is pleased with the outcome of negotiations with the EPA, but with some mixed feelings.

&uot;How can you be responsible for something you knew nothing about? We got information from them,&uot; he said. &uot;But, on the other hand, I want to compliment the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, EPA and Department of Justice for working very diligently with us. In fact, it’s probably the very quickest settlement they came up with in the history of the organizations.&uot;

&uot;The EXOL board of directors was extremely pro-active in responding immediately when we found about these emissions,&uot; Mummert said.

The cooperative had already decided to invest in the equipment before the June mandate. The $2 million pollution-control device, called a thermal oxidizer, incinerates the VOCs at 1,700 degrees, and the steam plume from the stacks will be virtually eliminated, along with the odor of cooked corn odors, according to Mummert.

Though the emissions invited a law suit surrounding the Gopher State Ethanol plant in St. Paul, it has never been a major issue in Freeborn County. Mummert said there have been only two complaints about the odor from area residents since January.

Mummert stressed the continuous commitment of 500 member farmers to the environment and area economy. EXOL produces 36 million gallon of ethanol per year, employing 39. It buys 15 million bushels of corn annually, which has contributed to a raised market price by 5 to10 cents per bushel.

The agreement will result in reducing VOC emissions by 95 percent. The total amount reduction in the 12 plants will be 2,400 to 4,000 tons. In addition, 2,000 tons of carbon monoxide, 180 tons of nitrogen oxides and 450 tons of particulate matter will be removed, according to the MPCA.

The regulators also expressed their satisfaction.

&uot;This is a success story for everyone involved and sign of continued progress with the ethanol industry,&uot; said Tom Sansonetti, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, who oversaw the negotiation.

John Peter Suarez, the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said, &uot;These settlements will set the standard in the ethanol manufacturing industry and we hope others will follow quickly.&uot;

The Sierra Club, the biggest environmental interest group in the U.S., announced last week that it intends to sue two ethanol plants: Ethanol 2000 of Bingham Lake, Minn., and New Energy Corp. of South Bend, Ill., for Clean Air Act violations. But, the settlement that will bring about the full compliance would deter the litigation.

The settlement documents were lodged in federal district court in Minneapolis and are subject to a 30-day comment period. Paula Maccabee of the Sierra Club said he wants to make sure that the ethanol companies receive stiff penalties if they don’t get the emissions under control &045; a provision that is written into the agreement.